April 17, 1978
By Tony Schwartz
Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle
Where do we take it from here?
Rhinestone suits and new shiny
It’s been the same way for years.
We need a change.
Even as Waylon Jennings wrote those lyrics back in 1975, the traditions that had long dominated country music were breaking down. For all its Southern, rural, blue-collar roots, it was a middle-class Australian singer named Olivia Newton-John who had been named top female vocalist by the Country Music Association the previous year. Jennings himself, along with several other “outlaws,” had begun to challenge the traditional homogeneous Nashville sound with songs that strayed from such classic country themes as love turned bitter-sweet into such once heretical areas as alienation. Even as immutable a legend Loretta Lynn was getting restless. Her 1975 rendition of “The Pill,” about a woman asserting her right to the same freedoms as her man, punctured country music’s stereotype of women as God-fearing powder puffs.
Now, country music has come out of the backwoods for good. One of its grandes dames, Dolly Parton, in search of a younger and larger audience, made her latest recording in Los Angeles, using both a string section and synthesizers. Although purists lament its lushness, the album has become her biggest commercial success yet. Parton and Linda Ronstadt, whose songs blend country and rock, are perhaps the best known and most successful crossover queens, but just behind them is an appealing group of ladies in waiting—Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Mary Kay Place, and Katy Moffatt—who are stretching country music’s boundaries still further.
The purest country sound among the four belongs to the singer with the fewest country roots and the largest pop following. Emmylou Harris, 31, was raised in the Washington, D.C., area and began playing guitar and singing folk music in local coffeehouses during the mid-‘60’s. Even then her leaning were traditional. “I’d only listen to real stark music,” she recalls. “While everyone else was tapping their feet, I was trying to keep my feet from tapping.” Harris was drawn closer to country music by Gram Parsons, a onetime member of the Byrds and a leader of the late-‘60’s country-rock movement. They recorded two albums together before his sudden death in 1973. “It was an ear-opening period for me,” says Emmylou. “I’d always liked Hank Williams and Buck Owens, but with Gram I discovered that country music was a natural form of singing for me.”
Hip Manner: In 1974, she signed with Warner Brothers, and since then she has released four albums, all produced by her husband, Brian Ahern. Although her material is eclectic—she does songs from Parton to Paul McCartney—the plaintive piney-woods feeling evoked by her sweet, sinewy soprano has never wavered. “I’m very respectful of the country form,” she says, “and my records strive for that sort of simplicity. I’m not inhibited by the form, it inspires me.” The reward has been consistent success on the country charts. In concert, she appeals to a young, rock-oriented audience not only with her earthy good looks and unadorned style, but also with the hip, knowing manner she has cultivated. “We play with a rock ‘n’ roll sort of attitude,” she says about performances with her backup group, the Hot Band. “Frankly, it’s probably a good thing, because country shows don’t pay enough to maintain a band of the caliber I have.”
But Emmylou’s heart is pure. “Brian could make much more commercial records with me, but I’m lucky enough to have a following that’s faithful enough so I can continue to do just what’s musical for me,” she says. “I’m like a pop singer trying to become a real country artist. The industry trades have called my current album (Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town) ‘pop,’ but actually it’s even simpler, more musical and honed down than ever. And simplicity to me, is the essence of country music.”
Dirt Poor: Crystal Gayle’s country-music credentials are unarguable: she is Loretta Lynn’s younger sister. Beyond that, the two are remarkably dissimilar. At 27, Crystal is sixteen years younger than Loretta, who was already married by the time her sister was born. Whereas Loretta grew up dirt poor in Butcher Holler, KY, Crystal was raised in more comfortable circumstances in Wabash, IN. Her musical influences were mixed. Weekdays she listened to the pop fare of the day—Lesley Gore, Brenda Lee, even Broadway musicals—and on weekends she sang mostly country in local clubs. Summers during high school she’d go on the road with her sister and by graduation she had decided to become a professional. Her first hit, for Decca, was one of Loretta’s songs—“I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes).”
But Crystal Gayle’s career didn’t take off until she switched to the United Artists label and settled with her husband outside Nashville. Her first two albums for UA generated hit country singles, but unlike Emmylou Harris she longed for pop success. “Loretta doesn’t need it,” says Crystal. “She’s a living legend anyway. But I dread about reaching a larger audience.”
Ironically, her biggest pop success so far is not a folk song or a cabaret number, both of which she sings, but the bluesy country tune, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Part of Gayle’s pop appeal, like Harris’s lies in her presence: with a slender figure and long brown hair hanging loosely down her back, she exudes innocent sensuality. But so far, she has stuck mostly to country crowds—traveling the same state-fair and high-school-auditorium circuit that her sister does. “They’re more loyal than pop audiences,” she explains. “A pop artist can have one hit and then never be heard from again. Country audiences don’t forget so fast.”
Good Humor: Mary Kay Place, 30, built her following not as a real country singer but as a parody of one on television. On “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and a follow-up show, “Forever Fernwood,” she played the ambitious but only semitalented Loretta Haggers and sang good-hearted, often hilarious songs that she wrote herself. It was on “Mary Hartman” that Brian Ahern first saw Place and decided he’d like to do an album with her. “I was caught between wanting the chance to record and not wanting to do a novelty ripoff record,” says Place. “But I’d always been a big fan of Emmylou’s, so I decided to go with Brian.”
The result, called Tonite! At the Capri Lounge, was a mixture of her own playful tunes, including “Baby Boy” (“Well, we shared some chunky tuna / Then we kissed under the moona / And I knew forever we’d be thick as fleas”), and traditional songs by Dolly Parton and the Louvin Brothers—all with backup vocals by Emmylou and her Hot Band. The album managed to blend Mary Kay’s evident savvy with her genuine feeling for country music, and to the industry’s surprise it won numerous accolades.
In fact, Loretta Haggers is an authentic part of Mary Kay’s past. Raised in Tulsa, OK, where her father is a college professor and her influences urban and sophisticated, she spent summers with her grandparents in Port Arthur, Texas. There she fell in love with country music. “What I like,” she says, “is its simplicity, musically and lyrically—the truisms of country songs. I’m the cliché queen of America—I believe ‘em all.” Assuming that she would never make it as a singer, she moved to Hollywood after college and eventually began writing sitcom scripts and acting on television. Her singing debut was on “All in the Family,” where she performed an original tune, “If Communism Come Knocking at Your Door, Don’t Answer It.”
Juggling commitments over the last year, including roles in the films New York, New York and Bound for Glory, Mary Kay managed to release a second album, Aimin’ to Please, and put together a band for her first tour, scheduled to begin in October. The three songs she co-authored on her new album are a more sophisticated lot than the Loretta Haggers tunes. Among them are “Cattle Kate,” the tale of an entrepreneurial prostitute in the 1800’s, and “Marlboro Man,” about the shattering of a young woman’s celluloid ideal. “I like emotional grabbers, songs I can get wrapped up in,” says Mary Kay. “And country music seems to lend itself to that.”
Dark Side: Katy Moffat’s Fort Worth, TX, upbringing gives her unimpeachable Southern roots, but her musical background had a bit of everything. Her brother, Hugh, is a country songwriter, her grandmother was a concert pianist, and her teen-age tastes ran to the dark side of folk music—songs by Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, and the like. After a brief fling with college—“It wasn’t how I was going to learn what I wanted to learn”—she played in Texas blues and regional folk bands. In 1973, she landed in Denver, CO, discouraged and uncertain about what to do next. It was while jamming with local musicians that she discovered that “country music provided a real vehicle for the blues quality in my voice.”
When country producer Billy Sherrill heard Moffatt sing for just fifteen minutes during a Columbia Records convention, he signed her up. Her first album, Katy, was produced by Sherrill himself in Nashville. It was a critical success and a commercial flop.
Sophisticated Pop: Katy’s second album was delayed by in-house haggling over the direction it should take, but the result, Kissin’ in the California Sun, is one of the most delightful and under-recognized pop-country albums around. The album’s production is sophisticated pop—dominant bass and drums punctuated by occasional saxophone riffs—and the title song, which Moffatt wrote, is infectiously ingenuous: “Makin’ love on the balcony / Underneath the canopy / In the mornin’/ Lord it sure is fun / To be kissin’ in the California sun.” But Moffatt, 27 also demonstrates the capacity to sing a soulful Curtis Mayfield hit, belt out various rock ‘n’ roll tunes and still convey a down-home feeling on the album’s four country-tinted tunes—all of which she wrote. “The aim for this album was to really go pop,” she says, “But I guess you just can’t take the country out of me.”